Can South Korea's Biggest Film Festival Bounce Back Amid Controversy and a Boycott?

Courtesy of BIFF
'Love Education,' directed by Sylvia Chang, is BIFF's closing night film.

Asia's leading movie event in Busan will feature Hollywood star power — from Jennifer Lawrence to Oliver Stone — but is dealing with a boycott following the screening of a politically sensitive documentary in 2014.

South Korea's Busan International Film Festival is set to open its 22nd edition with one of its starriest lineups of international guests to date, from Oliver Stone heading the main competition jury to Jennifer Lawrence attending the gala presentation of mother! But for the second consecutive year, South Korea's most acclaimed filmmakers will be conspicuously absent, as the 300-plus members of the Directors Guild of Korea, led by Okja director Bong Joon Ho, are boycotting BIFF, along with two other major industry associations. The hollowed-out industry attendance is indicative of even greater challenges ahead for Busan, as the fest's chairman and director have both announced plans to resign after this year's edition.

What exactly happened to Asia's largest and most prestigious film festival?

The trouble dates back to 2014. After years of riding the Korean Wave to growing esteem on the international festival circuit, BIFF organizers decided that year to push ahead with plans to screen the politically sensitive documentary The Truth Shall Not Sink With Sewol, which cast a critical eye on the government's handling of the 2014 ferry disaster that claimed 304 lives. After working against the wishes of Busan mayor and then-BIFF chairman Suh Byung-soo, who opposed the screening, the fest experienced what it describes as "political retaliation" in the form of a 50 percent cut in state funding, unprecedented audit reviews and the abrupt ouster of then-fest director Lee Yong-kwan and deputy Jay Jeon.

BIFF's legendary co-founder and former director, Kim Dong-ho, who had retired in 2010, returned in 2016 as chairman, but a string of misfortunes and controversies have since followed, starting with Kim Ji-seok, BIFF's longtime head programmer and briefly its deputy director, passing away suddenly while attending the Cannes Film Festival in May. Four staff members of the programming team then abruptly quit.

Nam Dong-chul, BIFF's Korean cinema programmer, has tried to divert the media circus back toward the event's lineup. "Films should take center stage at any film festival," he tells THR. "It's been tough for everyone, but I'm proud of our extremely diverse selection."

By this measure, Busan — which will present 299 films from 75 countries this year — still has much to recommend it. The event is courting Hollywood star power with renewed success — J.Law, no less — and this year marks the first time that the event has selected opening and closing films directed by women.

"There has been a lot of debate both in Hollywood and in the rest of the world about diversity in the film industry, and Asia is no exception," says Nam. "We wanted to highlight the important female directorial contributions emerging in Asian cinema."

A version of this story first appeared in the Sept. 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.